Monday was a hard day for people who love the man called Walter “Sweetness” Payton. They prefer to remember him as he is shown on NFL films, in the heat of summer wearing his Roos headband with sweat pouring off while running up and down the hills of Chicago to prepare for the football season.
It’s been 23 years since Payton took his last breath at 45 on Nov. 1, 1999, dying from primary sclerosing cholangitis a rare liver disease.
Whether Jackson State football was winning or losing, Payton loved his school and it loved him back. So much so, that the football athletic complex was built and named after him – Walter Payton Recreation and Wellness Center, which opened in January 2006.
Payton’s friends and former teammates shared their thoughts and feelings with the Clarion-Ledger on the anniversary of his death.
A second-team All-SWAC selection his senior year, Smith won two Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys (1992-’93). He went on to become the Jacksonville Jaguars’ all-time leading receiver with 12,287 yards on 862 catches and 67 touchdowns. He was recently inducted into the Jackson State athletic Hall of Fame.
Smith said he remembers meeting Walter Payton, with his parents.
“I was 12 years old and we’d get ice cream at Baskin and Robbin’s on the weekends,” Smith said. “Payton was getting ice cream, was chatting with my parents, and then he turned to me and said, ‘How are you doing, little buddy?’ while playfully throwing punches at me. I didn’t know what to do. I was star-struck, and I said to myself, “This is Walter Payton.” That was a lifetime memory for me. I have never forgotten that memory.”
Slater played with Payton for three years at JSU and was drafted in the third round as the No. 86 pick. A left tackle, Slater played 20 seasons in NFL, is in the JSU Hall of Fame and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
“I was never around a guy that had a better work ethic than Walter Payton,” Slater said. “In all the times I played in college or the pros, I tried to emulate his work ethic. I asked myself, ‘How I can do what he is doing and the energy he is doing it with at my position?’ I thought about it and never saw any way that I could emulate that. I made up my mind that on every play I would go as hard as I could. I wanted to put everything I had into every snap.”
Slater’s favorite memory of Payton is his being a goofball. When they were standing around, all of the sudden you would feel something crawling on your neck and you would go to swat it, and it was Walter with a feather or something.
Slater also remembers a moment while the two were in a theater on campus.
“Walter popped up did a handstand and walked 30 yards across the front and 30 yards back,” Slater said. “I have never seen anyone do that since. He was an unbelievable athlete, strong-willed and just a heck of a guy. It makes me miss him thinking about him.”
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Brazile was drafted in the first round as the No. 6 pick. He is in the Jackson State athletic Hall of Fame and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL in 1975 and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
“I think the most touching moment was we realized we were just humans,” Brazile said. Brazile and Payton were training for the East-West Shrine game in San Francisco and woke up on Christmas Day without family.
“The only family I had was Walter, and the only family he had was me,” Brazile said. “I realized then we had to console each other.
Brazile also remembers the last time he was with Payton was two days before the running back died.
“He told me he was scared. I never heard him utter those words before,” Brazile said. “I cried and was upset when I found out he had died, and I still get upset when I think about him not being here.”
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Patton is in the Jackson State athletic Hall of Fame. Was drafted in the 10th round at pick No. 258 in 1978 by the Atlanta Falcons. Patton won a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers in 1982.
Patton said Payton became his mentor Jackson State.
“I was the only ball player on campus,” Patton said. “One day when I heard someone hollering down the hall, ‘Ricky Patton.’ I looked up at Payton and he said to me, ‘You want to go pro?’ He said, ‘If you can work out with me every day, you’ll go pro.’
“Just like he said it, it happened. We went to Pearl, Mississippi, and ran those sand dunes and in the woods every morning. He taught me you don’t have to be the biggest person, but you have to have endurance and build that strength to outrun people. Walter taught me that all you need is an opportunity.”
Payton retired in 1987 after 13 seasons as a Chicago Bear and was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 16,726 yards.
“A great man once said, ‘It is not a celebration unless you have a group of friends,” Eddie Payton, Walter’s brother, said during his eulogy at his funeral.
Those sentiments meant a lot to the Jackson State and Chicago Bears faithful who gathered Monday to remember their friend and their loss 23 years ago.